The Core

In a week’s time I move into my new apartment and begin the newest semester of college, this being my junior year. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the education I received my first two years at the University of Dallas, and the defining characteristic of that education: the Core. Prepare for a mild degree of ranting.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, I’ll briefly describe the courses UD’s Core (the list of those required of all students) includes (for a total of 21 classes):

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • “Fundamentals of Economics”
  • “Principles of American Politics”
  • Two science classes, one “life science” and one “physical science”
  • A math class and a fine arts class (for whatever reason these are listed together)
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

This is a fairly large list of courses; they’re usually finished by the end of a student’s sophomore year. I’m done with all of it except the foreign language, due to taking German Elementary I & II my freshman year and then not taking any languages last year (I blame Rome).

In general I think it’s a good program, but I have a number of complaints with it. For the most part, they boil down to, “either force students to take this subject seriously, or take it out of the Core”.

Complaint #1: The math and science classes in the Core are, for the non-math-or-science major, a joke. The problem is that, while the courses in English, Philosophy, Theology, and History all serve as a good introduction to the subject for someone wanting to major in those subjects, no math major will ever take “Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries” (the course non-math-and-science majors always take), instead they’ll take Calculus I&II (if they haven’t already), then Linear Point Set Theory, and go from there. No biology major will ever take the class known colloquially as “baby bio”, instead they’ll take Gen Bio I, and then Gen Bio II. Et cetera.

This results in the majors not taking the core courses, but jumping right into the actual subject matter, while the core courses are taught be people who don’t want to teach them to classes composed of people who don’t want to take them and study the subject to so little depth that it might as well not be studied at all. My solution? Sadly, unless the school could bring itself to start demanding that its entire student body learn calculus (which I don’t expect to happen, though I don’t see why it shouldn’t; for some reason calculus is seen as too difficult for fine arts majors), I think the best thing to do would be to cut out the math and science requirements altogether. These are subjects that (ought to) have been taught to the students in high school already to at least the same level they’re learning about it at college. Why duplicate that effort?

Similarly, though Economics and Politics majors do take Fundamental of Economics and Principles of American Politics alongside non-major classmates, the politics core course seems to me to duplicate what’s taught in high school politics classes and the history classes that are part of the core, and the economics one is just as bad. I doubt there was any need for the majors to take the class before taking higher-level classes, and the non-majors in the class learned little from them.

Then there’s the Fine Arts course inexplicably lumped in with the math requirement. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this requirement is. To get any kind of decent grasp of art or music or in the Western tradition would require a multi-course sequence (and indeed, the core requirement is satisfied, when not by “Art and Architecture in Rome”, by a single course picked from these sequences). The requirement can also be satisfied by a single “History of Drama” course. This major requirement just seems bizarre to me, especially given how it can be satisfied by studying visual art OR music OR drama, a somewhat random collection unified only by not being purely language-based.

Is the goal to convey a history of “aesthetics” in general, and visual art, music, and drama, are all seen as equally good vehicles at doing this? If so, then just put more emphasis on views of aesthetics in the English classes, which already serve as a history of artistic development, but are currently restricted to language arts only, or in the History classes, which are already essentially history of intellectual thought and incorporate a good deal of aesthetic history. But why have a separate core requirement that can be fulfilled by any of a large number of courses that each give you only a snapshot of the history of the arts?

So if I made these changes to the Core, what we we be left with? It would look something like the following:

  • Four Literature classes, starting with the ancient epics, then doing the Christian epics and lyric poetry, then “Tragedy and Comedy” (but mostly tragedy), then the modern novel, and also talking about how the works of literature fit into broader aesthetic categories (“Romantic”, “Renaissance”, “Medieval”, etc)
  • Four History classes, two on “American Civilization” and two on “Western Civilization”, talking about not only political but also intellectual and aesthetic history
  • Three philosophy classes, “and the Ethical Life”, “of Man”, and “of Being”
  • Two theology classes, “Understanding the Bible” and “Western Theological Tradition”
  • Classes in a foreign language going up to the “intermediate II” level

Total: 14 classes. Which is essentially a student’s freshman year, plus the semester they spend in Rome if they go. A reduced core, but one that still fulfills its purpose.

Bringing it down to 14 courses also gives some room for additional courses, if desired; for example, since “history” is now explicitly burdened with talking about intellectual and aesthetic history, rather than just political and economic history, a fifth history course might be desired. (“Explicitly” is in place of “implicitly” – history classes at UD already focus on intellectual and aesthetic history more so than anywhere else, this would just make it official.)

It is also a Core that is unapologetically unscientific. This is not ideal, I believe, but it better than being apologetically unscientific – better than pretending to include math and science, but actually not leading to any real study of those subjects except by those who are majoring in them. It would be possible to still include math and science in the Core, of course, but it would require a radical perspective shift; if you believe they ought to learn more than they already did in high school, then forcing them to learn calculus is the logical next step. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s pointless to force them to continue taking math classes.

So that’s my grand theory of what I would do to the Core if ever I were in charge of UD. I never will be, of course, which is why even if this plan is actually more harm than good, we’ll never know about it. But that’s the fun of wishful thinking, isn’t it – that there’s no consequences to poorly thought out wishes?

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2 Responses to The Core

  1. Therese says:

    On the whole, I agree: the math and science options for non-humanities people are deplorably anemic.

    I would say there is some argument for having a more purely theoretical math course in there for humanities majors: something along the lines of Euc and non-Euc, but much more difficult. It can be done, and is at certain other small liberal art schools, to a rather good effect; not everyone needs to know calculus, but the logic of Euclid is something we should all probably encounter in a liberal arts education. The only problem is that in class here, we never actually read any of his many volumes at all.

    Astronomy is probably not a bad option for humanities majors, because there’s the whole astronomical/astrological theme going on in western literature from ancient myths right on up through the medieval period. It’s at least kind of enriching to know what the constellations look like and to have a grounding in how it actually works. Plus Dr. O is not a teacher to let it get too easy. Baby Bio and Forensic chem really are jokes, I think; but you could substitute an option that is informative, yet suitable for non-majors (I took Anatomy, for instance, to fulfill the life-science requirement – not too hard, but you learn a lot, and what you learn is useful). The problem I found with taking a class like physics or chemistry is that you really don’t get all that much out of them if you’re only taking them for one semester; you’re kind of just left feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface and that you should have learned a lot more…but of course, you don’t have time to take more classes because you’re trying to complete a major.

    I would object to cutting the sciences completely only because they really are an integral part of a balanced education, and you don’t want to leave our UD Bubble to enter a predominently scientifically-minded world without having been at least superficially introduced to that discipline. But if that’s the justification for retaining them, UD really ought, as you said, to make sure that we take genuine science courses instead of fillers.

  2. You’re right, science and math are an integral part of a liberal arts education. My question is, does a liberal arts education begin with college? The answer is hopefully “no”. Students *ought* to be learning enough math and science before coming to UD to say they’ve been “superficially introduced to the discipline”, and the required math and science classes for humanities majors at UD certainly do no more than that.

    I suppose, then, it comes down to this – should the university assume its students come in with little to no scientific background, and thus force them to learn what they should have already learned – remedial courses, essentially – or should it assume they already know what they ought to already know, and thus require no science in the core?

    I suppose this is what APs and transfer credit is for – if you’ve had those classes in high school and learned them to a sufficient degree that you can pass the AP or a dual-credit course with a community college, you ought to be able to not take those courses, and indeed that’s what many people do. My objection then is more to the idea that we should assume a lack of proper education, rather than assuming the students have been properly educated unless it is shown otherwise. It kind of reflects badly on the quality of the student population that we make the negative assumption rather than the positive one.

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